Background Although there is strong evidence for a relationship between child abuse and neglect and conduct problems, associations between child abuse experienced at different developmental stages and developmental trajectories of conduct problems have not been examined. We sought to investigate effects of timing of child abuse on conduct problem trajectories in a large UK birth cohort study.
Methods We applied latent class growth analysis to identify conduct problem trajectories in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, using parent-rated conduct problems from ages 4-17 years (N=10648). Childhood-only and adolescence-only abuse, in addition to abuse in both developmental periods (‘persistent’ abuse), were assessed by retrospective self-report at age 22 years (N=3172).
Results We identified four developmental trajectories: early-onset persistent (4.8%), adolescence-onset (4.5%), childhood-limited (15.4%), and low (75.3%) conduct problems. Childhood-only abuse and ‘persistent’ abuse were associated with increased odds of being on the early-onset persistent and adolescence-onset conduct problem trajectories compared to the low conduct problems trajectory. Adolescence-only abuse was not predictive of trajectory membership. There were no associations between abuse and childhood-limited trajectory membership.
Conclusions Early-onset persistent and adolescence-onset conduct problems showed similar patterns of association with abuse exposure, challenging developmental theories that propose qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, differences in environmental risk factors between these trajectories. The results also highlight that childhood-only and ‘persistent’ abuse were more strongly linked to elevated conduct problem trajectories than adolescence-only abuse, and that ‘persistent’ abuse is particularly detrimental.